The Tempest by William Shakespeare

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Drama on 3 on BBC Radio 3

BBC Radio 3, 6 May 2012
Jeremy Mortimer's production declared its intentions from the very beginning, when the Master and the Boatswain's lines ("Here, Master. What cheer?/ Good, speak to th'mariners. Fall to't yarely, or we run ourselves aground") were given to Prospero (David Warner) and Ariel (Carl Prekopp). They were the stage-managers of the forthcoming action, with the power to control the mortals' lives through spells and other devices, should they so wish.
Sometimes this power could be used for good; on other occasions Prospero's motives in particular seemed distinctly questionable. Towards the end of the play Prospero drew back a curtain to reveal Miranda (Rose Leslie) and Ferdinand (Al Weaver) happily playing chess, much to Alonso's (Paul Moriarty"s) delight ("Now all the blessings/ Of a glad father compass thee about" (V,i,183-4). Prospero advised everyone to celebrate the spirit of the occasion, delivering the lines "Let us not burden our remembrance with/ A heaviness that's gone" in jocular tones (201-2). However he was not so benevolent when Caliban (James Garnon) was around: early on in the revival Prospero positively spat out the lines "Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself/ Upon thy wicked dam" (I,ii,320-1); and at the end of the play, there was a malignant delight in the way he ordered Caliban to go to his cell, thence to await an (unlikely) pardon (V,i,295-7). In the light of this reaction, we doubted whether Prospero was sincere in his desire to abjure his "rough magic" (V,i,50|). If anyone threatened his position, he was highly likely to use it once more.
The music (by the Devil's Violin Company) emphasized this ambiguous view of power. Sometimes we heard merry dances forming the backdrop to the action - as, for example, when Miranda and Ferdinand were entertained by the masque involving Ariel dressed as Ceres (IV,i). At this point we felt that community values might prevail: Prospero was working hard to engineer a happy ending. On other occasions a single violin, or the sound of a few bars on the cello conjured up an unearthly world in which Prospero's magic interfered with nature - as, for example, when he asked Ariel to dress as a harpy and taunt Alonso, Sebastian (Peter Hamilton Dyer) and Antonio (James Lailey). While understanding Prospero's motives (to take revenge on his "meaner ministers" (III,i,87)), we nonetheless wondered why he found it necessary to half-scare them to death.
Sometimes the exercise of power involved playing different roles: Ariel dressing up as a harpy and employing an other-worldly voice echoing across the airwaves (part of Caleb Knightley's brilliantly atmospheric sound-design), or Trinculo (Don Gilet) and Stephano (Gerard McDermott) picking up some fine apparel and shaking it to hear the rattle of the jewels before putting it on (IV,i). On these occasions the sounds - Ariel's voice, the jewels rattiling - reminded us once again of how power can be abused: even Trinculo and Stephano found it necessary to threaten Caliban with dire punishment ("I"ll turn you out of my kingdom" (249-50)) unless he submitted to their will.
In the end the action drew to an expected happy ending, with order restored and everyone - except Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano - having their wishes fulfilled. In a newly-inserted line Prospero told us "please you draw near," and delivered the epilogue, where he implied that he was as much in thrall as Ariel. If Ariel needed to be released by Prospero, so Prospero needed to be released from his bands with the help of the listeners' "good hands" (Epilogue 10). This statement appeared doubly problematic: first, in view of his past behaviour, we had good reason to doubt Prospero's sincerity - did he really believe himself to be at our beck and call? Secondly, in a radio production it is not necessary to applaud - perhaps Prospero knew this, and was actually taunting us with the information. Whatever his motives, I felt that listeners were being drawn into his sphere of influence; having released Ariel, he was now looking for someone else to control.
This profoundly unsettling thought was the culmination of a deeply unsettling revival: brilliantly acted and scored, it made me approach Shakespeare's play with fresh eyes.